We people of Earth are experiencing a renaissance in horror on TV like we’ve never enjoyed before, as traditional gatekeepers are dispersed in the wild hunt for content, any content that is compelling or innovative or just plain outré enough to collect people at watercoolers, where presumably advertisers can drop a net on the whole pack and harvest their disposable incomes and/or pineal juices. There’s Scream Queens, Scream, American Horror Story, Ash Vs. Evil Dead, Stranger Things, Bates Motel, and so many more jostling for your eyeballs, and they are all worthy of your eyeballs. The surprisingly gory Supernatural is in its 80th season, I think, and The Walking Dead has proven itself stronger than even zombie fatigue. And for every Penny Dreadful or Hannibal that is cut down, a Twin Peaks or X-Files will rise. But everyone in my house is sick, and have been in various configurations for the last month and a half, so I can’t tell you about any of those new shiny things at the moment. Sick babies are hell on your Netflix queue. And while David Cronenberg and Anthony Burgess’ epidemiologic horror is also top of mind these days, I find myself ultimately retreating to the comfort food of old favorites. In this case, the genteel rictus smile of Boris Karloff’s Thriller.
Stephen King had high praise for Thriller in 1981’s Danse Macabre*, and you’ve got to respect Stephen King’s opinion in these matters. Deference to King aside, since it wasn’t widely syndicated like The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, Alfred Hitchcock’s anthology shows, and a slew of others, and I fall in the Gen X cohort that missed the first go-around, I never actually clapped eyes on the show until Netflix picked it up a few years ago. There’s only two seasons, but these are 1960s seasons, so the hour-long format delivers a full 50 minutes of content, not the 37-42 minutes we get today, with a total of 67 episodes, so it certainly doesn’t feel like a short-lived series. I think a show would have to be on for almost a decade in Britain to ding 67 eps.
In a lot of ways, Thriller is just like its horror anthology contemporaries and successors: weird standalone teleplays – usually horror, but sometimes a crime or mystery story — starring many faces who, if not already famous and beloved, would certainly become so later on: Ida Lupino (who also directed a boatload of these and scripted one), John Carradine, Leslie Neilsen, Ursula Andress, William Shatner, Harry Townes, Elizabeth Montgomery, Rip Torn, Mary Tyler Moore, and on and on and on. The stories tended to be horror siphoned from a very EC Comics vein, where bad people succeeded in bad things, only to be visited with hells of their own making. The most upfront difference was its host, a man once simply billed by his forbidding last name in Universal’s horror heyday, Boris Karloff, who also starred in a handful of the stories as a glorious bonus.
Boris was a big value add, no question, not only bringing the heft of his horror credentials, but investing every host segment with superbly ghoulish glee. Each episode, after an appropriately shocking cold open, Boris would step into the scene or the camera would pan to reveal him, much in the manner of Rod Serling’s introductions in The Twilight Zone, but instead of Serling’s moralistic omniscience, Boris was conversational and warm, and the bloodier the subject matter, the more delighted he seemed. It’s a neat trick, possibly unparalleled, to be at once so kindly and so sinister. I could watch nothing but a loop of his host sequences for hours. And Boris really worked for it. When he warned, “And those were no ordinary pigeons. They were pigeons from hell!” you knew he meant it. Before the lights went down for the story proper to begin, he would also introduce the cast, reminding you of the unreality of it all briefly before returning to his convivial threats. I love these sequences, especially when the cast physically walks into the picture with Boris, looking haunted or malign, and I love that, at least initially, Boris referred to them as “Mr. Rip Torn. Miss Patricia Barry,” etc. It’s exquisitely mannered. The tagline was, “As sure as my name is Boris Karloff, this one is a Thriller!” And he was pretty true to his word.**
There were a few clunkers, though there always are, and even the success of the better episodes may be a matter of taste, particularly several decades after some of the punchlines and the story outlines have been retold so often they’re blunted with quaintess. But the source material was as top notch as The Twilight Zone at its height, harvesting work from August Derleth, Robert E. Howard, Richard Matheson, and particularly Robert Bloch, who wrote seven episodes. And hell, Ray Milland directed an episode about Jack the Ripper. There was a ton of talent going into these shows, and if it had had a better timeslot, maybe it would have survived to become the institution The Twilight Zone (deservedly) is. Thriller did at least spawn a comic series, Boris Karloff Tales of Mystery, which survived the show and Karloff both into the 1980s.
My favorite Thriller episodes all turn on that EC Comics flavor horror. You could easily swap out Boris for the Crypt Keeper as far as that goes, but I do prefer Karloff’s puns. Here, in no particular order, are my five top Thriller episodes for the adventurous viewer. There’s a DVD collection, plus it’s currently showing on the Decades cable channel. You may find many episodes on YouTube.
William Shatner did two Thriller episodes, and I have a hard time picking a favorite. Part of this is simply because Shatner’s really good in both. People make fun, but he’s a damn fine actor, and his black-and-white work could be a lot more restrained than we expect from Captain Kirk or Denny Crane. In “The Hungry Glass,” based on a Robert Bloch story, Shatner is one half of a young married couple who have just bought a house . They were sold the house by a realtor friend, who you may also recognize as Russell “The Professor” Johnson, and it has a spooky reputation that has kept the Century 21 sign out front for a generation. When the Shatners take possession of the house, they’re there for approximately a minute before the realtor’s wife screams that she saw a figure outside the window, and it’s not Torgo because the window overlooks a scenic sheer drop. There are nervous chuckles and rationalizations, but it doesn’t take very long at all for Shatner and his wife to start seeing fleeting figures in reflective surfaces. And then the wife finds an attic full of mirrors.
The second Shatner episode is called “The Grim Reaper,” another Bloch adaptation, and it stars a cursed painting that really looks like sweet heavy metal van art. Here, Shatner is the nephew of a different castaway, Natalie Schafer, who plays an eccentric, exuberant, and very alcoholic mystery writer. She recently acquired the cursed painting because she’s the kind of person who would, and her caring nephew has come to warn her off of it. As he explains, when the scythe of the depicted grim reaper drips blood, someone will soon die. And wouldn’t you know it? He touches the painting to demonstrate and comes away with bloody fingertips. That same night, his aunt discovers her husband is trying to snuggle her assistant. It’s a story that’s equal parts Clue and the Roddy McDowall vignette in the Night Gallery pilot, and it’s perfect.
My third Thriller pick is called “The Hollow Watcher.” The Hollow Watcher is a scarecrow, and I love demon scarecrow stories. It is also a story of southern white rural poor, which always interests me since, well, I was/will always be, and their treatment always grabs my interest, but it’s fair here.*** It starts with Denver Pyle as a meaner version of Briscoe Darling, attacking his son Hugo’s mail-order Irish bride. As father and son fight it out, the bride sneaks up and whacks Daddy dead. Since the son was pretty well knocked out by his father, she’s able to convince him that he beat his father so profoundly that his father ran away, forsaking his land. Hugo, in hillbilly man-child mode, expresses anxiety that “The Hollow Watcher,” a scarecrow up on the hill/avenging monster will visit judgment on him for raising a hand to his elder. In the meantime, a man claiming to be her brother arrives on the scene, his wife recently dead. Hugo is called away, and brother and sister are revealed to be man and wife grifters with a very Crimson Peak approach to building a nest egg. Hugo might be gone, but the Hollow Watcher still overlooks the property, and as Boris reminds us, “The beliefs of simple country folk can create forces that can certainly surprise you.”
Next, I choose “The Terror in Teakwood,” a story about a hatred between two concert pianists so white-hot, it survives death. Hazel Court plays the wife of the still living pianist Vladimir Vicek (Guy Rolfe), disturbed that since the death of his rival Karnovich, he’s been acting, well, a little weird, and she keeps finding him covered in blood. She thinks that someone is trying to kill him. So she goes to her ex Jerry (Charles Aidman) and asks him to come work as her husband’s manager, while secretly trying to get to the bottom of the blood-covered husband biz. Imagine how worried she’d be if she knew what her husband did at his rival’s grave in the cold open.
Lastly, I recommend “The Incredible Doktor Markesan,” based on an August Derleth story, starring Boris Karloff as the titular doktor with Dick York and Carolyn Kearney as his nephew and nephew’s wife, driven to the door of his Old Dark House in penniless desperation. Markesan, creepier even than his house, agrees to let the poor couple stay, but insists they never leave their room after dark, and just to be sure, he locks them in. Markesan, sweetie, if it didn’t work for Dracula, it’s not going to work for you.
Those are my favorites, but even as I make the list, I want to recommend “The Purple Room” for the Psycho exteriors and Rip Torn almost unrecognizably young, “Mr. George” for its darkly comedic tale of a specter foiling three wicked people’s attempts to kill their young ward, Patricia Barry’s Jekyll and Hyde performance in August Derleth’s “A Wig For Miss Devore,” the weird voodoo weirdness of the Robert E. Howard story “Pigeons From Hell,” and on and on. This show has so many goodies. Even the crime thriller episodes have their good points, like…Robert Lansing. “Late Date” is a pretty good one of those, based on a Cornell Woolrich story. And while there’s a lot of exciting new stuff out there that deserves your attention, just because something’s of a certain vintage, that doesn’t mean you should give it up for dead.
[manic laughter, discordant organ music begins]
* Among Stephen King’s very astute judgments in Danse Macabre, I have, with time and home ownership, come to appreciate his verdict on The Amityville Horror as being mostly horrifying when you think how much money that poor family hemorrhaged.
** Of course, he never legally changed his name from William Henry Pratt, so if a show wasn’t a thriller, I suppose the joke would be on us.
***I will note here that the setting is rural North Carolina, and everyone pronounces the word “hollow” with a long o sound at the end. That has a very spooky ring and is certainly evocative of a man made of straw, but since it refers to a place, i.e. the hollow the scarecrow is watching over, it really should be pronounced “holler,” especially by country folk. I assume no North Carolinians were consulted in the making of this episode.
Angela does wonder about the alternate timeline where Bela Lugosi hosted an anthology show.